In the first post in this series, we introduced the main physical training components that tennis players likely should focus on during the off-season/general preparation phases. To get the best out of this week’s article, I suggest reviewing part 1 beforehand.
In this post, I’d like to tackle a few key points. First, I’ll outline what a typical training week during a general prep phase might look like and how the overall cycle takes shape. Next, I’ll take a stab at commenting on the interplay and subsequent management of on-court and off-court training loads. Lastly, I will offer some feedback - in other words, why it's my belief that training the various qualities outlined in last week’s article shouldn’t stop once the off-season/general prep cycle ends.
Off-Season & General Prep Training Schemes
Here’s what a typical off-season microcycle (training week) might look like in terms of its density - the amount of training performed in a designated period of time. Elite players usually train 6 days a week with 1 full day off (often being Sunday). As you can imagine, 6 days of training can be quite taxing and tiring - which is why most elite settings include at least 2 lighter days. These are referred to as recovery sessions and in my programs, are placed on Tuesdays and Thursdays - note that some coaches advise a complete day off mid-week but this is implemented on a player to player basis. On recovery days, tennis sessions are reduced in either intensity, volume (time on court) or both. Colleagues of mine and I have traditionally reduced the amount of movement drills performed on these days. Off-court sessions include general and med ball routines that are higher in reps but lower in sets - mobility circuits are also incorporated on these day.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are usually tougher days and include specific weight training methods (different on each day). Weight training can be reduced to 2 sessions a week if other training qualities are deemed more important. Many players will still get the desired training effect with 2 strength/power sessions. Some may disagree on this point but I've seen it first hand. For example, when I was completing my master degree in sport science from the University of Edinburgh, I began lifting heavier than I was accustomed to (I trained for years before but not with the same types of loads). The thing is, I was on-court playing and coaching a lot (along with coursework and so on) - needless to say I didn't have much time to spend in the weight room. Most weeks I could only get in twice a week but believe it or not, I was hitting personal bests on a regular basis. So it is possible. But let's move on.
Saturdays are moderate days and most often include some form of med ball work, lower-body plyometrics, conditioning (if no tennis has been played) and maybe some general bodyweight circuits. Of course this is merely a template and depends on how the athlete is responding - daily modifications are made (this is called cybernetic periodization - a term coined by sport science pioneer Mel Siff). It also depends on how much time/importance is being placed on tennis training. In the example below, there's a big reduction in on-court training. Some settings include a period of time where no on-court training is being done while others continue with on-court work. This structure of an elite player's microcycle organization will depend on a host of variables.
Here’s an example of a weekly microcycle with reduced on-court training...
A macrocycle is built via a number of microcycles. It can vary in length depending on the structure of the program. In recent years I have adopted a 3 week macro - this is based on the work by many elite coaches across various sports. The traditional macrocycle approach (which was proposed by earlier sport scientists and popularized by Tudor Bompa), called for a 4 week macro - 3 weeks of loading and 1 week of unloading. Many modern day coaches experimented and noticed that their athletes responded better to a 3 week structure - 2 weeks of loading and 1 week of unloading. Anecdotally, athletes seemed fresher and reported lower incidences of illness and injury. I’ve also noticed that it helps with psychological aspects. Players I’ve worked with seem to stagnate less (3 weeks goes by quick before a variation of the previous cycle is implemented) and knowing that you really only have 1 tough week (week 2) allows athletes to be better prepared mentally.
While this structure is great when players and coaches have 3, 6 or 9 (if you’re lucky) weeks to work with, it may not exactly reflect applied settings. That’s where the cycles can be adjusted up or down. For instance, let’s say you have exactly 30 days (1 month) of an off-season block to work with, that doesn’t really allow you to execute a 3 week cycle (in the traditional sense). What can be done in this case is to have 3 sets of 10 day mircocycles instead. This actually works quite well if you’re still doing a lot of on-court work but also need time to train the necessary off-court qualities. Instead of doing 3 gym sessions in a 7 day period, you now have 10 days to perform those 3 sessions. It may allow a player more time to recover between sessions, and in turn increase the quality and intensity of those sessions.
Managing the Interplay Between On-Court and Off-Court Training
This is critical and often poorly understood, even at the elite levels. Let’s suppose a player recently completed an on-court training session and hit 75 all-out serves. Should we then also prescribe a variety of vertical jumping tasks with a bias on uni-lateral landing (essentially what’s being done every time a player serves)?? Or what about a high-velocity med ball circuit that involves maximal throws? The answer could be yes and no. If controlled for volume, these forms of training don’t have to be neglected when on-court sessions are intense. But managing the volumes and intensities are key. Perhaps a jumping routine that involves more bilateral power in horizontal and lateral directions would be more appropriate on this particular day. The same may be true for med ball throws. Although one set of 2-3 specific throwing exercises may have a potentiating effect on serves and could very well be implemented prior to serving, volumes must be monitored accordingly.
A similar story exists with conditioning. If the tennis coach runs a player through a variety of 2 on 1 drills at high intensities with lots of movement, should we then tax this player with more conditioning? Among other qualities being trained with a drill of this nature, conditioning is one of them. Studies (Mendez-Villanueva et al 2007) have shown that blood markers (lactate concentrations in particular) can reach values above 8mmol/kg in elite players DURING TENNIS - enough to tax the glycolytic system. Furthermore, there's some good evidence that small-sided games (Halouani et al 2014) - a form of playing an adapted version of the sport in question (like 3 on 3 half-court basketball for instance) - is just as effective, if not more effective, at improving both aerobic and anaerobic factors in elite team sport athletes. In tennis, an example of this type of game might be some form of mini touch games (see video of Djokovic below). Bottom line, if players are already doing a lot of on-court work, more isn’t necessary and could in fact be detrimental.
Overall, coaches, trainers and players have to ask themselves - what’s the priority in this training block and what’s being done on the tennis court? If there are weeks where players aren’t on court at all (or tennis sessions are highly reduced in terms of both volume and intensity), then it’s ok to include all off-court training qualities at higher volumes and intensities. But if tennis training is being done simultaneously - up to 3-4 hours/day - the off-court program needs to be managed diligently. I’ve been around many tennis circles over the years - as a player, coach and consultant - and I often see on-court sessions that grind players into the ground, followed by more fitness sessions that do the same. It’s my belief that we must drill down on specific aims - and have the awareness that certain qualities may be overlapping (an example is tennis tactical training along with conditioning). This is where a simple monitoring system can be put in place to track training loads, fatigue, soreness, energy levels and so on.
Don’t Stop Once the Competitive Season Starts! The Transition
While many pros get good quality work done during off-season training cycles, often times they believe that’s the end of the line. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t quite work that way. Have you heard the old saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it?. Well that couldn’t be more true in this particular scenario. Players increase their strength and power capabilities, improve their passive and active flexibility but often times stop addressing these qualities during competitive cycles. We know that today’s game is full of reactive split-steps and multiple changes of direction...not to mention over 300 groundstrokes per match - the underlying physical components that make up these qualities will be quite high, but other fitness components will decline.
I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent for a second but bear with me as it'll make sense shortly. In general there are 2 types of fatigue, central and peripheral. Central deals with the nervous system - it’s ability to send a clean signal down the spinal cord, innervating the appropriate motor unit complexes. When you’re fatigued centrally, common symptoms include overall feelings of tiredness, lack of energy, no power etc. You don’t necessarily feel sore, but you definitely aren’t fresh.
Peripheral fatigue, on the other hand, deals primarily with the muscular system and surrounding tissues. This is your DOMS - delayed onset muscle soreness - type of fatigue (an example can be lateral oblique, lat and serratus soreness after an initial bout of high intensity serves - particularly after some days or weeks off from serving OR soreness in the quads after high intensity, high-ish rep squats).
In any case, when players experience central fatigue, a common remedy is for them to take time off from training. That’s exactly what should be avoided. In these cases, general movements sequences are key. This can include bodyweight and light med ball circuits, cycling and swimming (non-impact modalities), a mobility routine that targets all the joints involved in tennis and one cannot neglect a thorough warm-up (dynamic lunge exchange example below):
Also, because high level tennis demands a lot of SSC (stretch shortening cycle) activities - jumping on serves, short explosive movements, CODs, rotational tasks etc. - a couple qualities that always seem to diminish during the year include speed-strength (or explosive strength) and maximum strength. Over 10 years ago, I had a conversation with Dennis Lindsay - then the fitness coach for the national program at Tennis Canada. He was also working with Peter Polansky at the time (Pete is currently ranked 110 in the world). He told me every time Pete would head out for a 3 or 4 week tour, he’d come back with diminished strength levels and an overall decline in lower-body mass. Many players who lose a lot of strength/power often feel out of breath on-court. How can that be? This happens often. Coaches see players struggling after going through a few long (8+ ball) rallies and think it’s a conditioning issue. It’s usually not. Movement is more complex than that. The more likely scenario is that the contractile properties of muscle aren’t able to handle the demand - in other words, ATP resynthesis can't keep up to the demands of cross-bridge cycling (the process in which muscles contract).
With all that being said, the same structure that was presented earlier isn't likely possible when competing in 1-5 matches per week (not including qualies and doubles for some). But I’ve even had players perform speed-strength and max strength training in between tournaments to keep these qualities up. For max strength, as long as there are at least 48 full hours between the end of the workout and the beginning of their first match, they’re usually fine. Control the volume very closely - which is generally the greatest predictor of muscle soreness post strength training.
As for speed-strength - because the loads are quite low, and the aim is to move these loads rather quickly - you won’t usually see any adverse effects in terms of soreness or impaired coordination/skill with this form of training. This type of workout can be done with a 24 hour gap between training and competition. In fact, using it as a pre-day routine (prior to your first match) can be highly effective in priming the nervous system to be active and fired up for a match. If playing on consecutive days, there may not be a chance to do this type of work although it’s not out of the question. It depends, however, on whether the player is accustomed to this type of training. If so, soreness is generally never a problem - most athletes actually enjoy this type of training as they feel more energized and explosive afterwards.
While this is by no means the only way to do things, I hope this 2-part series on off-season/general training - with a special focus on the physical qualities - has provided some useful insight. Training (and keeping) the various qualities necessary for elite tennis at high enough levels to compete with the best, week in and week out, is the primary aim and shouldn't be overlooked.